The Inheritor’s Powder: A Tale of Arsenic, Murder and the New Forensic Science

Sandra Hempel, Author
Sandra Hempel. Norton, $26.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-393-23971-3
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Hempel’s fascinating look at how the science of poison detection developed is certain to draw in readers with its masterful combination of telling details, engrossing prose, and drama—the same combination that marked the author’s The Strange Case of the Broad Street Pump (about the 1831 cholera epidemic that ravaged London). This time, Hempel focuses on a different dilemma for the Victorian medical profession: how to successfully determine when poison is the cause of death. “The paranoia of early Victorian Britain... saw poisoners lurking in kitchens and behind bed curtains throughout the land, their little bags of white powder at the ready.” In 1833 the strange death of farmer George Bodle and the investigation of his family members, with whom he lived, frames the history of scientists’ struggles to develop foolproof tests for the presence, in the victims’ digestive tracts, of arsenic—the most commonly used poison used at the time. The Bodle case reads like something out of Dickens, and those fascinated by modern shows like CSI will delight in learning about the field’s early days. (Oct.)
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